OPINION: What The World Baseball Classic Is Getting Wrong
The national United States baseball team beat team Puerto Rico in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic on Wednesday. This is the first time the title of ‘World Champion’ has been bestowed upon the team from the U.S. But if you had no idea that the U.S. won, or that the U.S. team made it further than it ever has before, or that an international baseball tournament existed in the first place, don’t worry. It’s not your fault.
— MLB (@MLB) March 22, 2017
Although it’s popular in the countries of several of the participating teams – the 2006 and 2009 finals are among the most watched television event in Japanese history – the World Baseball Classic hasn’t garnered much enthusiasm in the U.S. over the course of the tournament’s eleven year history.
But why should it?
The 2013 and 2017 tournament – the third and the fourth – were broadcast exclusively on the MLB Network, a channel that is only available through expensive cable packages or as a singular channel, one that costs fans $112.99 per year. This exclusive broadcast is only an issue inside the U.S. – the rest of the world can watch on ESPN and several other sports channels available in their country.
To be fair, the first two iterations of the World Baseball Classic – which doesn’t even own the rights to the abbreviated, “WBC” by the way – were broadcast in the U.S. on ESPN. And while the number of viewers weren’t staggering, leeway must be given by the fact that the tournament was fairly new.
The World Baseball Classic is the brainchild of former MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who decided to make a push for the tournament after the International Olympic Committee removed baseball from its Olympic schedule in 2005. With the help of the International Baseball Federation, Selig was able to make the tournament a reality and the first World Baseball Classic began in March 2006.
With the goal of bringing baseball to parts of the world where it was previously unknown – or extremely unpopular – the World Baseball Classic was conceived with good intentions. But with the focus on the world outside of the U.S., the popularity of the tournament inside the U.S. got lost in the shuffle.
But even if the World Baseball Classic was broadcast on a more accessible station, it’s unlikely that people would even watch, considering the World Baseball Classic occurs at the exact same time the NCAA March Madness tournament does.
March Madness, the most popular collegiate sports tournament in the U.S., dominates the Nielsen Ratings during the three weeks it is broadcast. Not surprisingly, the tournament also brings in about $1 billion in revenue for the NCAA – not to mention the $9.2 billion that will be gambled on the tournament, according to the American Gaming Association.
The World Baseball Classic has chosen to compete with a tournament that owns an entire month of the sporting world. Unless fans choose to boycott March Madness for some reason – say, because the players get zilch from the total revenue produced by the tournament – the World Baseball Classic doesn’t stand a chance.
Not only is the World Baseball Classic competing with other sports for viewers, it is also competing with itself.
The World Baseball Classic is played during spring training, a time during late February until Opening Day in April when baseball teams play exhibition games. Spring training is a time for players to get back into the swing of things and prepare themselves for the long and grueling 162-game season. The World Baseball Classic takes Major League players out of this laid-back environment into a hyper-competitive one, where they risk injury and general fatigue.
Over the years, it has taken some convincing to get MLB players to join the World Baseball Classic. Derek Jeter joined in 2006 and brought an air of legitimacy to the U.S. team. Moreover, many foreign born MLB players have chosen to play for their home country’s team during the tournament and get to showcase their talents to the country that made them.
But still, many top players choose to stay away. Noah Syndergaard, a pitcher for the New York Mets and one of baseball’s best, chose not to play in this year’s World Baseball Classic after being invited by team U.S.A.’s manager, Jim Leyland.
“Ain’t nobody made it to the Hall of Fame or the World Series playing in the WBC,” Syndergaard told reporters in at the Mets’ spring training facility in early March.
Competing with spring training forces fans to make a choice as well. For fans, spring training is a time to dream of possibilities – young prospects make their debut and fans look for that small spark of future superstardom while other players return from injury and fans look for that small spark of superstardom’s past. Fans pour endless optimism into their favorite team and, although it may sound silly, there may not be enough left to support the World Baseball Classic team they may root for. In addition, the World Baseball Classic team may seem like small potatoes compared to the enthusiasm they have for their MLB team.
It’s a shame that the World Baseball Classic has gotten so little attention. Several games during this year’s tournament have been well fought and down to the wire. Puerto Rico won their semi-final game with a race towards home plate after a sacrifice fly – a testament to good, fundamental baseball. Team U.S.A. has also had some impressive wins and impressive plays – Adam Jones made a ridiculous catch in the outfield to rob a homerun and preserve U.S.A.’s lead.
For die-hard baseball fans, these games have been enough. The level of competition is fierce and there have been plenty of exciting moments. Just as interesting as rooting for a team is rooting for the sport for these fans. But this group is a small percentage of potential viewers of the World Baseball Classic.
Much like the FIFA World Cup, the organizers of the World Baseball Classic should hope that once, every four years, fans come out to the stadium and to the bars, adorned in their U.S.A. jersey, hats, and other such regalia to wave around wildly in the air. These fans need not be die-hard baseball fans. They don’t even need to know all the rules of the game. Just as long as they root for their country’s team because of some feeling of unrealized patriotism.
It certainly won’t be easy to get to that point but there are simple things that can be changed that will help the World Baseball Classic head in the right direction. First, make the games more accessible by broadcast the tournament on major networks in the U.S. Second, reschedule the tournament to be played in early February, before spring training starts and, most importantly, before the most popular sports tournament in the U.S. starts.
The third step, albeit a bit out of the organizers’ hands, is to get top talent involved. This will happen once the first two steps are followed, and American fans are flooding to the field to see their team play. If players realize there are actual stakes at hand during the World Baseball Classic they will play.
But if things don’t change, the World Baseball Classic doesn’t have much of a future – or at least one in which the U.S. is not involved.